REFLECTIONS ON SWR NEWJAZZ MEETING 2007
by Fred Frith
I’ve never particularly thought of myself as a jazz musician. My musical background is quite eclectic, covering classical, folk, blues, rock and experimental music from a relatively early age, But jazz is something I have admired from a distance – an intriguing, inspiring, tree-shaking life force that inevitably informed my work even as I recognized that it was not my story. Brubeck, Miles, Mingus, Ornette, Coltrane, Sun Ra – my icons, my dreams, my secret life, but as inaccessible to me as were the worlds of my other heroes: Bartok, Messiaen, Stockhausen. My world, but not ‘my’ world. Meanwhile, of course, the word jazz is used, rightly or wrongly, to loosely describe just about any supposedly freely improvised music. So we began from the premise that what we’d be doing here was improvising. The trouble is, I’ve never been interested in improvisation as a “genre” with unspoken rules and constraints every bit as rigid as those it’s supposed to be escaping from. Must a tonal melody be merely a parody? Is a simple chord sequence beneath us? A regular pulse a sell-out? The only thing that matters to me is that the music is alive, and communicates its vitality as directly as possible. My role models as an improviser were not the founders of LMC, or ICP, or FMP, or AMM, but the Pink Floyd in 1968, the Grateful Dead on Anthem to the Sun, the Mothers of Invention, and my colleagues in Henry Cow.
In the improvisation ensemble at Mills College there may be an oud player from Palestine, a Japanese kotoist, an Indian bansuri player, a classical violist, a laptop performer, and a free jazz alto saxophonist. They have to learn to respect each other, but also that they can only really do so by respecting themselves. New Jazz Meeting afforded a fantastic opportunity to explore the idea of improvisation in much the same way that Peter Brook explored the meaning of theatre – by putting together “actors” who do not necessarily speak the same “language” and who come from quite different personal and cultural experiences, and having them live and work together simply and without distractions, even if in this case it was only for a few days. After the first rehearsals I made a list, trying to get at the essence of what was going on.
—I am here, and I am alive.
—To live, I have to breathe.
—I am surrounded by sound. Familiar. Unfamiliar.
—To survive, I must be ready for the unexpected.
—To survive I must learn to communicate with others.
—First question in a conversation: “Who are you?”
Second question: “What do we have in common?”
—Sometimes conversation means to disagree. Disagreement is best when it is clear. Disagreement should
also be a matter of respect.
—Not just pretending to agree – superficial acceptance - but acknowledgement of distance. The tension
between: “we are here together” and “we are here separately”.
—Ritualized disagreement – “You say this, and I say this.”
—To delight in being alive.
—To delight in being alive is to accept the right of others to live?
—To be a virtuoso is to strive to overcome one’s limitations.
—Exhilaration and wonder – how did we do that?
—Intimacy. Regret. Longing.
—From the moment we are aware, we are aware of transience, and decay.
—Repetition equals survival? Reaffirming what we know.
—On the other hand our deep desire to explore and embrace the unfamiliar— to travel, to learn, to try to
There are many more sentences waiting to be added to this list. I’m deeply grateful for the generosity and
engagement of the musicians, not to mention their high spirits. It wasn’t jazz, but it was a lot of fun.
Fred Frith, 2011